To study psychological trauma is to come face to face both with human vulnerability in the natural world and with the capacity for evil in human nature. To study psychological trauma means bearing witness to horrible events. When the events are natural disasters or “acts of God,” those who bear witness sympathize readily with the victim. But when the traumatic events are of human design, those who bear witness are caught in the conflict between victim and perpetrator. It is morally impossible to remain neutral in this conflict. The bystander is forced to take sides. It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.
from Trauma and Recovery, by Judith Herman
(photo credit goes to Peter Roise Photography)
Douglas Wilson of Christ Church Moscow has recently blogged against the best practices concept that when we hear allegations of mistreatment or crimes against women and children, we should begin with belief. According to him, beginning with belief is exactly what we must not do.
Let’s break this down a little.
Why begin with belief?
- Because of the power imbalance inherent in an abusive relationship. When one of my kids comes crying into the kitchen and claims her brother hit her on the head, I do not begin with belief, but with investigation. I reserve judgment, call the other child, and ask for his side of the story; but this is exactly what we must not do when dealing with allegations of abuse. Why the difference? Because an abusive relationship always involves a significant power imbalance, and any attempt to interact within or bring healing to the situation must begin by taking that imbalance into account. Abuse has a range of meaning, but in the vocabulary of advocacy, it speaks of the systematic misuse, entrapment, or domination of another person. Abuse of this kind silences the voice of the person who is being abused, it cuts her off from saving relationships, and it removes her power, or her ability to act. You see this dynamic when a husband is pervasively dominating his wife, when a parent systematically oppresses a son or daughter, and any time an adult relative or friend, a counselor, a coach, a caregiver, or a significantly older sibling preys sexually upon a child. Wherever one person holds a position of privilege, strength, authority, seniority, or greater knowledge, and uses it to take advantage of someone smaller, weaker, and less able in the world, you have abuse. Where you are dealing with allegations of abuse, your first priority must not be to flush out the whole truth of the situation to your own satisfaction, but to preserve the safety and return the voice of the victim.
- Because disclosure is costly for the victim. Women who speak up about their husband’s mistreatment, and children who disclose sexual abuse at the hand of a parent, sibling, relative, or friend, are putting a lot on the line. They risk losing relationships, the affection and approval of friends and family, and the lives they are familiar with. The choice to disclose abuse is not an easy one: it typically comes from a place of desperation, and we need to begin by honoring that likelihood. Diane Langberg, a Christian trauma counselor with many years of experience, has said this: “Keep in mind that it is extremely rare for an alleged victim to lie about child sexual abuse. It is a fair assessment of the body of research on lying to say that most people lie on a regular basis. However, numerous studies have documented that it is rare for children or adults to lie about abuse. When victims to lie, they tend to lie to protect their offender, not to get him or her into trouble.”
What is belief?
Belief is serious and careful listening. It is willingness to hear, ask probing questions, and act on the basis of what we learn. When we begin with belief, we assume for the moment that what a child is saying about having been sexually assaulted, or what a woman is telling us about the way her husband mistreats her, is statistically very likely to be true. When we begin with belief, that will lead us to do certain things:
- We will act immediately to offer safety to the woman or child in question. If there is severe or systematic abuse in the home, our first priority must be to provide options that support the safety of the victim. We need to deliver a message that we are there unconditionally to support and help as needed–whether by talking about safety plans, providing financial assistance, or even merely offering a safe, supportive space in which to discuss the situation.
- We will encourage reporting to the proper legal authorities. Sexual abuse of a child is a felony in all fifty states, and any caregiver who suspects it is required to report it. Domestic abuse should often be reported as a crime, as well.
- We will NOT try to get “the other side of the story.” Often appropriate in counseling, in an abuse scenario, because of the exposure it entails to the victim, this would be a serious breach of trust. When we have been trusted with sensitive information in an abuse scenario, our first priority has to be the safety of the weaker party. Furthermore, if a crime is being alleged, it needs to be investigated by the appropriate people. Running to check with an alleged child predator or wife-beater about the truth of the allegations can create any amount of harm for the victim, and may constitute obstruction of justice. Investigation is not the role of the church, the counselor, or the advocate.
What about “Innocent until Proven Guilty”?
Isn’t what I have said at odds with some of our most dearly held principles as a church and as a nation — that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty? Tim Fall has written an wonderful blog post about this topic here; but the short answer is no. The legal system exists for precisely this reason. It is in court that an accused person has opportunity to clear his name of false allegations.
While some do take the position that the role of the church is to sit with authority as a judge between parties in a dispute, I am coming more and more to believe that the role of the church is very different. The role of the church is not to sit as the impartial judge between parties; it is not to provide spiritual comfort and acceptance alike to sufferers and to those who afflict them; and it is not to fill the role of the father confessor, until it has successfully exposed the sins of all parties involved. The role of the church is to follow Jesus in defending the weak and underprivileged, in standing against the wicked, and in lifting the burdens from the backs of the oppressed. We need to do better.
Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy. (Proverbs 31)
Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. (Psalm 82)
O LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear, to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more. (Psalm 10)